By Larry Gordon
More than anything else, it is about blurring the lines and distinctions and creating a controversy where one may not really exist. No, it’s not the tug of war between Democrats and Republicans on the matter of a formerly classified memorandum.
After speaking with Allen Fagin, the executive director of the Orthodox Union, about the recently released position document issued by the OU on the matter of shuls that have women on the rabbinical staff, it seems that while important and very much on the Jewish agenda, the matter just might be much ado about very little.
But that does not mean that it is not a delicate issue, and the OU and other leadership groups in Orthodox Judaism need to approach the matter in a comprehensive fashion, with keen rabbinical guidance and maximum sensitivity so that there are no misunderstandings.
And if there was ever an issue that can potentially become extremely divisive, this might be the one.
No doubt there is pressure from a small minority of the Orthodox community that there be greater parity when it comes to rabbinic roles in our shuls for women. Disagreeing with that should not be construed in any way as an affront to the vital role of women in traditional frum Jewish life and their integral contributions. Affirming a rabbinically guided position that does not allow, as a matter of Jewish law, women to serve in rabbinic roles is by no means intended to diminish female centrality in Jewish life. It is disingenuous to suggest that is the agenda here.
“The OU is addressing an issue as required by halachah,” Mr. Fagin says. As a leadership group with over 1,000 synagogues under their organizational umbrella, the role of women in official rabbinical capacities has been forced onto the agenda. The issue is important to shuls like the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and their affiliate, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, that ordains women with the title of “rabbah.” Also making news is Congregation Bnei David in Los Angeles which will feature Rabbanit Alyssa Thomas Newborn, who will deliver the Shabbos derashah this week according to the Jewish Journal in LA.
The reaction to the OU position on the matter has been positive on both sides of the issue, says Mr. Fagin. There are only about five shuls that have women on staff with some rabbinical responsibility, and while at one point it seemed that the OU might have to sever their affiliation with these congregations, the rabbanim who studied the issue said that those shuls can remain with the OU, but going forward no new female personnel will be added to those shuls or any other member synagogues. The position paper also noted that the plan is for congregational compliance by 2021.
The 5TJT reached out to several rabbis who preferred not to comment on the record because, as one rabbi said, “Whatever is said will be misunderstood. There is no winning on this issue.”
The interesting thing here is that no one is disputing Torah scholarship by women, and there is no dispute over the matter of women sharing their knowledge, doing pastoral counseling, teaching classes, and even deliberating on the adjudication on certain halachic matters. So where exactly is the controversy?
For many of the rank and file that we have spoken with, it is a matter of maintaining a rock-solid tradition in a world that is always evolving and changing, sometimes in dramatic ways. Due to communal pressures on religious leaders around the world, various mainstream religions have gone through extensive revisions to the point where they are no longer recognizable in some instances.
When these pressures are brought to bear on the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, from our perspective it does little more than spiritually loosen the anchors of Jewish life. Reinterpretation, or some might say watering down, of halachah sometimes leads to adherents nonchalantly letting go and simply drifting away from Judaism or, for that matter, any kind of religious practice.
On that level, this issue is not about women as rabbis in Orthodoxy. It is about tampering with our religious foundations and where that can ultimately lead. In Conservative and Reform Judaism, the lack of emphasis on the authenticity of Torah and the proclivity to introduce fundamental changes has led, for example, to an intermarriage rate in those streams of Jewish life of more than 70%.
Landing on the right side of this issue is challenging because the moment you raise the matter of official roles of women in halachic life, you risk being accused of being backward and of resisting progress.
To that end, the Orthodox Union has done a masterful job taking on a difficult matter, which, although it affects a very small number of synagogues, still looms large on our communal horizon and is being handled respectfully and responsibly.
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